OWCP commits to better processing of injury claims of firefighters

The Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs responded to a letter from six Senators

Deer Park Fire, patient on litter
An injured firefighter is moved using a “conveyor belt” technique on the Deer Park Fire in central Idaho, August 6, 2010. Screen grab from USFS video.

In responding to a letter from six U.S. Senators, the Director of the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs (OWCP) has promised better processing of claims from firefighters injured on the job.

The incompetence of the OWCP in quickly and fairly paying the medical bills for wildland firefighters has become a quagmire that should infuriate citizens of the United States. Men and women serving their country who suffered serious, life-changing injuries, in some cases were hounded by bill collectors, forced to attempt to pay huge fees for their treatment, and had to declare bankruptcy resulting in their credit rating dropping into the toilet. It has not been uncommon for firefighters for the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management to resort to asking the public to give them money at GoFundMe, because their employer refused to honor their requirement to pay their doctor, hospital, and physical rehabilitation expenses.

The first sentence of the Senators’ February 14, 2022 letter to OWCP Director Christopher Godfrey said: “We urge you to expedite the establishment of a special claims unit to handle firefighter compensation claims so that it can be in place before the start of the 2022 fire season.”

The Special Claims Unit processes death benefits for members of the Armed Forces who die in connection with a “contingency operation.” The OWCP told Buzzfeed News in December, 2021 that they were in the process of developing new procedures and modifying existing policies to include the use of the Special Claims Unit. But apparently by February 14 it may have appeared to the Senators not to have been done, which prompted the letter.

A response from the OWCP was dated March 9, coincidentally the day after Wildfire Today wrote about the effects of the agency dragging its feet in paying the medical bills for Casey Allen, a US Forest Service firefighter seriously burned while serving on the Dolan Fire, September 8, 2020. He finally got some financial relief after U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal and his district representative Wendy Motta were able to break a stubborn repayment logjam so Allen and his wife Tina could be reimbursed for money they had to pay toward his recovery.

In the March 9 letter from Director Godfrey, he wrote that as of December 15, 2021 they had adjusted procedures so that the Special Claims Unit now adjudicates all new incoming firefighter claims, and that it “should improve customer service and consistency in navigating through the medical requirements of their claims.”

In addition, Director Godfrey wrote, they are developing policy regarding the evidentiary requirements needed to link a firefighter’s exposure to toxic substances which can lead to “cancers, heart disease, and lung disease that firefighters are at risk for. Our policy will also recognize the difference between structural and wildland firefighters and their unique exposure risks.” They plan to train the Special Claims Unit to understand the new policies.

“Completion of these new procedures is expected by Spring of 2022,” said Director Godfrey. (We checked the official dates for Spring, and this year it is March 20 through June 21.)

This new structure could be a step toward recognizing presumptive diseases, a policy that is in effect in many agencies that employ firefighters. A bill that has been introduced in both the House and the Senate provides that heart disease, lung disease, and specified cancers of federal employees employed in fire protection activities for at least 5 years are presumed to be proximately caused by such employment if the employee is diagnosed with the disease within 10 years of employment; and the disability or death of the employee due to such disease is presumed to result from personal injury sustained in the performance of duty.

Below are photos of the March 9 letter from the Director.

OWCP letter, March 9, 2022 OWCP letter, March 9, 2022

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

3 thoughts on “OWCP commits to better processing of injury claims of firefighters”

  1. When program leads of Smokejumper bases, Type I Hotshot crews, and Forest Fire Management Officers brief their employees not to get hurt, because “I cannot guarantee proper treatment”, we have a liability problem. The one that sticks out most vividly in my career, was the policy of not being able to take a burn patient directly to a burn center before being seen and recommended by a physician, and if you do? You may not be compensated. Read that again.

    Thank you Bill Gabbert for providing an excellent platform for all to share a voice. If you remember, we once had “They Said”, but it finally caved under the political pressure of the man.

  2. All the bad press and high fail rates of an organization that is “supposed” to help people is finally catching up to them….about time…late for many…late because an agency has failed to modernize to the 21st Century. But I bet they have all the new technology, eh?

  3. Along with not paying for medical treatment in a timely and consistent manner, OWCP has had control of determining what treatment is appropriate, and this decision seems to have been driven by economics instead of the employee’s needs. For example, a coworker blew out her ACL on a fire. OWCP kept just sending her to physical therapy instead of getting her the needed surgery. This went on for many, many months. Things only started moving in the right direction when the employee got her district’s Representative involved. I hope that we do actually see an improvement in this process; too often it has felt like we are the enemy. I’ve seen many folks give up on the process and just use their own insurance to cover treatment and recovery.


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